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As we cross over the sweet, southern Tuscan flanks into the region of Lazio, we must trim our expectations. Light thins, impressions narrow, and the silvered rhapsody of Tuscany smudges into the blacks and greens and browns of the humble countryside of the Alto Lazio. Pastures and sheepfolds separate sandy-eyed villages sleeping through time. Some of them, rich with untrumpeted pasts unhunted by travelers, are hemmed by Etruscan necropoli, tombs excavated, preserved, beckoning small, whispered ingress into an elegant and precocious culture. The city of Tarquinia, the villages of Sorano, Sovana, Pitigliano, Sutri, Vetralla, Nepi, Civita Castellana, and Tuscania hold up smoked looking glasses into the essentially impenetrable story of Etruria.
And then there is Rome.
An ecstasy of secrets wrapped in lies and dreams is Rome. The ages ache in our throats as we float on her memories. Raised up from pagan huts huddled on wooded hills, Rome is the sublime issue of grinding wills and destinies dyed in blood, and into her earth are planted the most splendid conceits of power and beauty. Know them, touch them all, and still you shall not know Rome. One can recount her story, trample over her breast—never touching her heart—feel the shifts of her mood shivering one's skin. Still you shall not know her. Look up at her. See a splendid ruin of the Republic containing a medieval church that, in its turn, was re-dressed for the Renaissance, then persuaded into the Baroque—one springing, tumbling forth fromanother—in an unfading rhythm of resurrection from spoils. If you search her well, she will give up to you some shard of her mystery. But never mistake her smile for transparency.
It is enough, I suppose, that we are of her, of her crooked, confounding descendance of demons and heroes and saints. Perhaps, then, it is first our own shams and treacheries we must loosen, all the better to illuminate her. It helps to approach Rome as an innocent.
Even Romans will tell you they know only the places of her in which they live, where they walk, where they buy bread and take coffee and go to Mass. Pieces of her enchant them as they do us. Yet she is not a crumbled and ornamented old dame to be held gingerly, unclose, as if she were only her unembraceable stones. Rome is new and young and becoming, she is of kindness and possibility. Guileless midst the improbable drape of her ruins, she is gold-dusted and bewitching, engaging life, daring it, ravishing every bittersweet crumb of it.
A morning in March offers a walk to the Teatro di Marcello and a nearby temple dedicated in 431 B.C. to Apollo. Pediments, pilasters, remnants of the Empire are the precious litter strewn about the wooded patches of weeds and grasses. And there among them is one taking the sun. Her headrest is a fragment of marble column, supine, lustrous in the grass. Unselfconsciously pivoting her amplitude under the cupolas of black pine and oleander, she bathes her face in unshaded heat. A string bag filled with nodding, longstemmed artichokes and lavender roses waits beside her on the smoothed stump of another stone. In a single one of her moments, she has gathered up to her the sunlight, artichokes, roses, and some quiet, undesigned reckoning with her past. She is, after all, a Roman and would have nothing less.
Go at nine of a morning to a bar in Piazza Sant' Eustachio to drink Rome's best coffee, and standing there with you, upholstered in cashmere and Scottish tweed, lips powdered in sugar from his custard-filled croissant, will be a prince. Too, you will find the neighborhood's respected carpenter, a seller of rare books, a restorer of antiquated furniture, two chefs in crisp whites, a wine merchant, and, as dramatic tint for the proscenium, there will be a revolving brigade of red-and-blue-varnished carabinieri. The prince, the carpenter, the wine merchant, and the barista, the barman, all live in a nearby palazzo and have been neighbors for years. They and the others collect in the bar at more than several junctures of the day and evening, reviving or soothing themselves with the hour's appropriate cups, engaging in the life-giving ritual of empty discourse. And one can establish one's presence among them after, say, three consecutive mornings.
Thus assured, then, that one is a pilgrim rather than a passerby, the prince might inquire where and how well one dined last evening, or if one has yet seen the Fontana di Giacomo. The carpenter, having recently had a hand in a small project at the Palazzo Spada, upstages the prince by wagering that surely one has never even heard of Borromini's great trucco—trick—tucked inside the palazzo's museum. One or another of them or some multiple faction of the bar's cast will offer ceremonious escort into the field, teaching as artlessly as did the sunbather, informing, assuaging, if only for those moments, one's longing to know Rome.
About the Cuisine
Roman food is bawdy, vivid, radiant; it invites communion. Resonating the Roman appetite, it is, at its voluptuous and medieval heart, la cucina povera. The Empire's gusto for luxury and extravagance was long-ago faded in the pungent steams of a cauldronful of oxtails softening in a great bath of tomatoes and wine. To build the cuisine of Rome one must have, nearby, a thatch of mint—wild or peppery and an untimid hand with it—artichokes—those globe-shaped and adolescent ones too young to have suffered the growth of an evil choke and those tinier yet, tight-hearted and purple-lipped—the blunted fear of, if not an earnest yearning for, the viscera and the tail of an ox, the willingness and the grace to dance round a pot of bubbling oil, an absorbing passion and reverence for vegetables and fruits, and, finally, an indifference to sweets. A pitcher full of roses, overblown, their beauty bruised, their perfume fat and full, is also welcome.
Coda alla Vaccinara
OXTAILS BRAISED IN TOMATOES AND WHITE WINE
IN THE MANNER OF THE ROMAN BUTCHERS
Roman ox butchers, known as i vaccinari, have been attributed authorship for this most characteristic dish of la cucina povera romana. Honored as savvy, inventive cooks, the butchers were and are wont to pot up the most particularly toothsome nuggets plundered from the great beasts. The tail of an ox, though it surrenders inconsiderable flesh, is of the tenderest texture and most delicate savor to be gleaned from the whole hulk of him.
1 oxtail (about 2½ to 3 pounds), whacked into 2- to 3-inch pieces 3 ounces salt pork 1 large bunch of flat-leaf parsley 4 fat cloves garlic, peeled and crushed 1 large yellow onion, peeled and minced 2 small carrots, sliced Hearts and leaves of 2 large bunches of celery, the hearts sliced, and the leaves chopped 1 small, dried red chile pepper, crushed, or 1/3 to ½ teaspoon dried chile flakes 2 cups dry white wine ½ cup tomato puree 1 cup water 1 ½ teaspoons fine sea salt Freshly cracked pepper
Rinse the oxtail and place it in a large soup pot, covering it with cold water. Over a lively flame, bring to a full boil. Immediately drain the oxtail, setting it aside and discarding the water.
With a mezzaluna or very sharp knife, mince the salt pork with the leaves of the parsley and the garlic to a fine paste. In a large terra-cotta or enameled cast-iron casserole, over a medium flame, warm the aromatic paste. In it, brown the pieces of oxtail, turning them about in the fat, sealing them well.
Add the onion, carrots, celery leaves, and the crushed chile, sautéing them a bit in the hot fat before adding ½ cup of the white wine and permitting it to evaporate. Add another ½ cup and, again, let it evaporate. Add the remaining wine, the tomato puree, water, sea salt, and generous grindings of fresh pepper, bringing the mixture to a quiet simmer.
Cover the pot tightly and very gently braise the oxtail for 4 hours, stirring every ½ hour or so. Add the celery hearts and continue to braise, the pot covered, for ½ hour.
Permit the oxtail to luxuriate in its bath for at least 1 hour or as long as overnight in a cool place or in the refrigerator. Slowly reheat the oxtail and present it in shallow bowls with oven-toasted bread and cold white wine.
Mezzancolli al Cognac
PRAWNS BRAISED IN WHITE WINE AND COGNAC
Serves 4 to 6
A patently rustic treatment of the prawns that presses us to a dramatic sort of dance in front of the flame as we toss the fat, handsome things about in the hot oil, their briny perfumes dissolving up in great vapors around our heads. A bottle of fine Cognac perched on the kitchen shelf seems an occurrence as common in Rome as is the one filled with the simple white wine from the hills just outside its gates. Here, the bottle is used to a fine end, scenting the seething, sputtering flesh of the prawns inside their bronzed, vermilion shells.
1½ pounds large prawns or medium langoustines, unshelled
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup Cognac
Juice of 1 large lemon
Freshly ground pepper
Rinse the prawns and dry them on absorbent paper towels.
Heat the oil in a very large terra-cotta or enameled cast-iron casserole and, over a lively flame, sauté the prawns, tossing them about in the oil until their shells turn angry red and are beautifully browned, 5 or 6 minutes. Salt them generously, adding the wine and the Cognac, letting the prawns drink in all the bubbling liquids for 2 to 3 minutes, depending on the size of the prawns.
Remove from the flame and give the prawns a benediction of lemon juice and generous grindings of pepper before presenting them, in their casserole, with jugs of cold white wine.
Trippa alla Romana
TRIPE IN THE STYLE OF ROME
Serves 4 to 6
For nearly a century, the mattatoio, the slaughterhouse, of Rome was fixed, south of the city's center and flanked by Porta San Paolo and the Piramide di Caio Cestio, in the quarter of Testaccio—a hillock formed by the dross of terra-cotta amphorae that held olive oil and other comestibles imported into the city. Of an eloquent, uncompromised Roman character, the quarter grew up simple little houses in whose kitchens were cooked the humble remains of the butchers' art, transforming the offal into i piatti fortissimi—the strongest plates—to serve to the workingmen for lunch. Il mattatoio has long since been relocated, but the Testaccio still practices the most orthodox Roman gastronomic traditions, building dishes such as nervetti in insalata, a salad of poached calves' feet, coda alla vaccinara, (see page 4), pajata, the grilled or braised intestines of a calf or an ox, and trippa. As prosaic as are the formulas for these dishes, the manner in which they are presented is also prescripted.
First, if the proprietor in any one of the neighborhood's tabernae—Romans swing easily in and out of Latin, as in this usage for taverns—doesn't approve one's general look or demeanor, he will point, steely, to a little sign marked COMPLETO, reserved, that is fastened, permanently, handily for such occasions, to a rope of salame suspended from the rafters. If he does deem to seat one, neither he nor his colleagues will be charmed if one speaks Italian. It is only the dialect of Rome that is shouted in the Testaccio. It seems best to communicate, through eye-rolling and hand-flailing, that one wishes all decisions to be made by the house, that one is armed with magnificent appetite, and that one shall remain serene and unrepining at whatever part of whatever animal may be set before one. Our place of choice to be fed like a Roman is called Da Felice, an unsigned post in Via Mastro Giorgio. We go always of a Saturday so we can always eat tripe.
Soaked in water and vinegar, urging the nastiness from its pores, the tripe is poached before it is sauteed in a battuto (the fundamental vegetable, herb, and fat flavoring for a sauce) of pancetta, olive oil, and garlic, then braised overnight on the quietest flame in tomato, white wine, and wild mint. A Saturday ritual in the Testaccio, as well as in every genuine osteria and trattoria in Rome, la trippa is served in deep bowls, under a dusting of pecorino, with chunks of rough bread and a jug of Frascati. Food of the poor is this tripe, flotsam conjured into a flavorful, cockle-warming stew, one that a sage Roman wouldn't trade for a big, bloody beefsteak, not even one flounced in truffles.
2 pounds honeycomb veal or oxtail tripe
3 ounces pancetta
4 fat cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 14-ounce can plum tomatoes, with their liquids
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 bay leaf
3 cups dry white wine, plus more if necessary
1 small, dried red chile pepper, crushed, or 1/3 to ½ teaspoon dried chile flakes
1½ cups torn fresh mint leaves
Just-grated pecorino to taste
The tripe should first be rinsed, bleached in vinegar, rinsed again, and poached, all of which your butcher or specialty grocer may be able to do in advance for you. Rinse the tripe and, with kitchen shears, cut it into l-inch-wide strips, then cut the strips into 4-inch lengths. Cover the tripe with cold water and, over a lively flame, bring it to a gentle simmer and poach for several minutes. Drain the tripe, rinse it under cold water, and set aside.
With a mezzaluna or sharp knife, mince the pancetta with the garlic, making a fine paste. Over a medium flame in a large terra-cotta or enameled cast-iron casserole, warm the pancetta/garlic paste in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and soften the onion in the fat for 3 or 4 minutes, taking care not to let it color. Add the tomatoes, the sea salt mixed with the cloves, the bay leaf, the wine, and the prepared tripe, bringing the combination to a quiet simmer.
Cover the casserole tightly and cook for 2 ½ hours, undisturbed. Remove the lid, stir, and add a few spoonfuls more of the wine if the liquid seems scant. Replace the cover and continue to cook the tripe, over the gentlest flame, for another ½ hour. Test a piece of the tripe for tenderness. It is cooked properly when its texture is tender, though still pleasantly chewy—al dente, as you would cook pasta. Continue the slow cooking until this stage is reached.
Remove the tripe from the flame and permit it to rest for at least 1 hour, or as long as overnight.
Just before serving the tripe, warm 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a tiny saucepan and flavor it with the crushed chile. Set the scented oil aside. Slowly reheat the tripe, not permitting its liquids to reach the boil and stir in the chile oil and 1 cup of the mint. Let the tripe rest for a minute or two. Mix the just-grated pecorino with ½ cup of the mint.
Ladle the tripe into warmed deep bowls, dusting each of them generously with the pecorino/mint mixture.
|PREFACE: A PERSONAL NOTE||xi|
Posted November 18, 2000
Anyone interested in traditional regional recipes of Italy would enjoy owning this book. As the Italian Food host at BellaOnline, regional Italian cuisine is a special interest of mine. It is very evident as one reads through each chapter that Ms. Blasi has put a great deal of time into researching the southern regions of Italy, it's people and their cuisine. It is much more than a mere cookbook as great care has gone into describing each region which is encompassed in it's own chapter containing a brief bit of the region's history. As each chapter unfolds, Ms. Blasi shares with us the traditional specialties of that region, with page after page of delicious recipes. I particularly enjoyed the recipes used to celebrate the major Italian holidays. Although I found it disappointing that this book contained no photographs or illustrations, which would only have enhanced my opinion of this book, I was pleased that the majority of recipes called for every day ingredients. There are a number of game recipes, but on the whole, most recipes could easily be created by the average individual who shops at their local grocery or Italian specialty store. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in regional Italian cooking and it's history. However, it is probably not the best book for someone looking for a basic Italian cookbook.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.